Throughout the generations since Constantine, the church has sought to organize itself along institutional models. The idea was to organize for maximum effectiveness. I guess you could say “to build the perfect mouse trap.” (Please don’t take that metaphor further than intended, ok?) But it makes sense, doesn’t it? You want to be as effective as possible. Usually the church would organize following the popular institution of the day. For the post-Constantine church the model was the Roman Empire. The church was organized over the same geographic areas of the Roman Empire (diocese), Similar terminology was used to describe leaders and functions.
Government buildings (basilicas) were turned into church structures. Worship involved pomp and circumstance like many formal public functions of government. An "altar" was introduced to take the place of the common table. It was much like what one would expect to see in a pagan temple--or the Jewish temple. Evangelism was conducted either by conquest or birth. Clergy began to maintain the Roman style of dress to distinguish themselves from the encroaching barbarian hordes.
After a few hundred years, a movement calling for Reformation began to emerge. Leaders like Luther and Zwingli began to call for change. Not only did these men bring needed reformation in biblical understanding and teachings, they also began to change the model of organization to more of an academy or university model. The Eucharistic altar was replaced with a lectern stand. Little or no singing was encouraged--this was a place to learn, to hear the word expounded. Clergy wore scholars' robes. Evangelism was seen as primarily a teaching event.
Then came the industrial revolution and the emergence of big businesses. The church began to develop eldership or deacon boards to govern the church—they hired a pastor who acted like a manager who made certain the organization ran smoothly. Evangelism became a sales job. Non-Christians were spoken of in terms such as "prospects" and "contacts." Door knocking became a popular way of seeking converts.
In the 1980s and 90s this church model evolved into a entrepreneurial corporate structure—books such as In Search of Excellence and The One Minute Manager became important resources. Similar to the previous model, salvation became a product to consume. Even the worship assembly became a product. Strong emphasis is placed on needs-solution approaches. Evangelism took on the characteristics of mass marketing complete with the latest technology. Congregations either grew through merging or looked like start up businesses utilizing the latest buiness techniques. Leadership took on the charactersitics of corporate boards with a Entrepreneur-CEO-type pastor.
So what do we make of these models of organization? Were they bad or evil? Not really. And please understand what I am presenting is somewhat simplistic, broad and generic. At the time they seemed to make the most sense. And some elements in each were good—not every element was bad or unbiblical. Church leaders wanted to create the most effective way to accomplish kingdom business and they believed a large, well oiled piece of machinery would do the trick. Unfortunately, the well-oiled machinery tended to malfunction and when it did it was usually a major breakdown affecting the entire organization. Also, important things tended to slip through the cracks—like people: especially those on the outer fringes. As a result, the church tried to correct itself through creation of different structures: the monastic movements, the Anabaptist movement with its small gatherings of believers, the class movement of John Wesley, the Navigators, small groups—eventually other groups began to fill in the relationship void: groups such as A. A. and various therapy groups—groups which at times more closely resembled New Testament Christianity than the churches that filled our cities and country side.
I must be quick to point out, too: it's important to realize we will never arrive. All efforts by humans are imperfect. God is gracious and is always able to break through our limited efforts to reveal himself and to call people to him.
But the question comes to mind: is there a better model to follow? I think there is—but it will not come from studying business models or social structures or psychotherapy groups. When I was growing up I would hear preachers talk about the pattern and the correct model to follow when it came to church. Usually they presented another institutional structure that seemed to miss the point somehow. We still seemed preoccupied with event rather than relationship. We talked about proper structure and titles forgetting what Jesus said about wearing titles of any kind: that is, don’t! We seem to forget Jesus’ hierarchical model was an upside down pyramid: leaders are slaves of the whole. The better model is based on a person: Jesus. In one sense he is the model. Our pattern is Jesus and his life.
So how did he function? When we look at Jesus and his disciples we notice a small group on the move—constantly engaging the community around them. Did they organize? Of course they did. Judas was the treasurer. According to Luke 8:1-3 they received funding and donations from a group of women who traveled with them. Many times the twelve would perform some service function from feeding the 5,000 to organizing the Passover meal for the group. There is also an indication they used some of their funds to care for the poor. But emphasis was not on the organization. Organization tended to be simple, relational, and organic. When the early church grew in Jerusalem the major organizational challenge was to care for the poor—little else. Jesus led this group of disciples as Middle Eastern Shepherd: going before them, loving and caring for them, teaching and serving. He led the way by demonstrating mercy to those in pain and associating with the outcast. His style was merciful, face-to-face, relational, familial. There was no CEO mentality found in Jesus’ model. He wasn’t a leader who used servant-leadership principles: he was a servant!
His outreach and mission was to enter into the worlds of others. He ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners. He didn’t invite them to Synagogue services! He went to where they were. Do we really grasp this? Do we get the implication? He invaded their turf! But he didn’t just preach. He listened, he told his followers to do good deeds: to be salt and light, permeating the culture around them. He was engaged in conversation—read the gospels and see how often he was engaged. When he gathered and assembled with others—it was over a meal. If you read the gospels you might be surprised to see how often Jesus was eating with people of all kinds! Jesus was serious when he said in Matthew 11:18ff:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."
Our model for church is Jesus. Our pattern for being the people of God is the Son of God. Our example for organization and outreach is the ministry of Jesus. The book of Acts is merely an extension of Jesus’ ministry through those he left behind.
So what now? How do we appropriate this information? How does a church embody Jesus—how do we follow the pattern of the servant Son of God? What’s the better mousetrap? Start from the beginning. Seek first to embody the spirit and priority of Jesus: people over preferences—organism over organization—mission over method.
On a very pragmatic level: band together with a small group of believers on a regular basis for conversation about Jesus and the scriptures. Small home groups are a good place to start. But don’t just be a discussion group—be a ministry group. Organize as Jesus did—go out and serve others. Reach out to those who society has left behind. There are plenty of opportunities wherever you live. Talk it over with your small group—then mobilize. Most importantly: keep your eyes on the character of Jesus. Our identity is rooted in Jesus, not an organizational structure or institutional model.
We don’t need to build a better mousetrap. We just need to use what God has given us. Let’s return to simple church: gathering to encourage each other and to reflect on our Lord Jesus, and then going out to serve.
May you grow into the character of Jesus. May you as the people of God reflect the image of God. May we give up our infatuation with models and institutions and fall in love with Jesus and may his love for the world be expressed through us.